How to dispel your anxiety by sitting down quietly and doing nothing.
Most people in the Western world are tormented by their conception of their ideal self — it runs ahead of them like some phantom, beating them to every life achievement they never attained.
But Buddhism, and surprisingly genetics, imply that this needn’t be the case. What commonality is there between Zen Buddhism and genetics? Obviously one is a religion and one is a science; one is concerned with what we ought to do and the other a description of the natural world. But Buddhism has a lot to say about the recent genetic findings that all psychological traits are heritable.
Why do we strive to become something we can’t be, while we are definitely somebody right now? Perhaps genetics has the answer we’re looking for.
The First Law of Behavioral Genetics
The findings, specifically from the field known as behavioural genetics, suggest that all psychological traits are heritable. This is known as the first law of behavioural genetics.
Twin studies replicate and explain approximately 50% of the variance in outcomes between individuals. For a full explanation of this, see Plomin’s Blueprint.A simplified explanation is that genetically identical twins reared in different homes turn out nearly identical, whereas unrelated twins reared in the same home are as similar as two randomly selected individuals off the street.
Environmental effects on development have historically been overestimated, and genes account for most of the differences that we care about between people, like cognitive function and personality.
None of this is to say that you should give up on the self that you hope to become, but going with your genetic flow makes more sense. Just be who you are without trying to be anything specific (natural, funny, strong, or smart).
Ask yourself: which pursuits can encourage your natural propensities rather than constrain them? I can never hope to be an NFL star because (besides the fact that I am wholly uninterested in the sport) I am slow, uncoordinated, lanky, not aggressive, and not explosive. I would be better off seeking gratification in other areas of life.
How does this have anything to do with Zen? In short, Zen is a way of being who you are in this moment, and not aspiring to some fictional self that is just a conception of the mind.
Doing otherwise leads to a nervousness that constantly strives to become, instead of realizing that you are already who you are right now.
“There is not an iota of a thing to be called error in your inborn mind.… If you have the least desire to be better than you actually are, if you hurry up to the slightest degree in search of something, you are already going against the Unborn.”¹
The unborn mind is a state that is totally present in the moment. The traditional method of attaining this sense of now for Zen practitioners is zazen, or sitting meditation. This sense of now should naturally flow over into everyday life.
Meditation has a way of inspecting the now in a way that dispels worry and grounds oneself to reality. To be accepting of who you are right now — and for that matter, the genes you carry.
The study of genetics reinforces the Buddhist notion of not striving after ideals, because what makes us “us” is mostly genetic, inborn and right here. Your capabilities were written within you at conception, and worrying that you are not living up to your potential is the ultimate sense of dread in the 21st century.
Let it go. Can you ever be better than you can be? You certainly can’t while you’re trying to control everything.
A lot of anxiety in the West comes from having a lack of control. This leads to becoming angry about innate biological and environmental factors that you have no control over, which in turn leads to an unhealthy obsession with control.
This obsession with control can even lead machines to a faux anxiety, as explained by Alan Watts in The Way of Zen:
“Every feedback system needs a margin of ‘lag’ or error. If we try to make a thermostat absolutely accurate–that is, if we bring the upper and lower limits of temperature very close together in an attempt to hold the temperature at a constant 70 degrees–the whole system will break down. For to the extent that the upper and lower limits coincide, the signals for switching off and switching on will coincide! If 70 degrees is both the lower and upper limit the ‘go’ sign will also be the ‘stop’ sign; ‘yes’ will imply ‘no’ and ‘no’ will imply ‘yes.’ Whereupon the mechanism will start ‘trembling,’ going on and off, on and off, until it shakes itself to pieces. The system is too sensitive and shows symptoms which are startlingly like human anxiety.”
The route to changing behaviour is through action,² not obsessive thought — Specifically, internalizing actions as central to your being. If you want to be more helpful, start helping people, and then tell yourself “I am a helper.” This psychological finding accentuates the Buddhist precept that the mind cannot grasp itself, and that attempts to do so end in fruitlessly. Or, as one popular zenrin poem about consciousness puts it:
‘Like a sword that cuts, but cannot cut itself;
Like an eye that sees, but cannot see itself.’
While we should not give up changing ourselves, we should focus more on spontaneous action to avoid ruminating our lack of genetic and cosmic luck. “I wish I liked putting myself out there and meeting new friends, I wish I would try new activities and food, I wish I wasn’t so agreeable, I wish I was more dutiful, and I wish I didn’t worry so much.” But all of these traits show high genetic influence. So perhaps going with the waves is better than crashing upon them.
Zen Buddhism finds the oddest ways to convey conception to students. In some cases, the pupil would have never learned the lesson unless it came in an absurd way.
“The following story is told of Huai-jang, initiating into Zen his great successor Ma-tsu (d. 788), who was at the time practicing sitting meditation at the monastery of Ch’uan-fa.
‘Your reverence,’ asked Huai-jang, ‘what is the objective of sitting in meditation?’
‘The objective,’ answered Ma-tsu, ‘is to become a Buddha.’
Thereupon Huai-jang picked up a floor-tile and began to polish it on a rock.
‘What are you doing, master?’ asked Ma-tsu.
‘I am polishing it for a mirror,’ said Huai-jang.
‘How could polishing a tile make a mirror?’
‘How could sitting in meditation make a Buddha?’” ³
This demonstrates the incoherent nature of striving towards unattainable states of being. The very act of striving to become something prevents you from attaining it. You are who you are, and who you are has been with you since birth, encoded by amino acids and spun together in a sugar-phosphate helix — like the bindings of the story of your life.
So, perhaps we should find a way to go with the spirals shaping our life, and let ourselves grow into the person that will grow.
“Sitting quietly, doing nothing, Spring comes, and the grass grows, by itself.” — Basho